Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan by Thomas Havens

(Book Review)

This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only book about the anti-Vietnam War movement in Japan. (The topic's not virgin territory by any means. There are lots of articles in academic journals. But this is the only full length book that I’m aware of).

Japan was very much involved in the Vietnam War because the bases in Japan and Okinawa were used as launching points for the U.S. army. (Okinawa was not returned to Japan until 1972, and was essentially a US colony until then.) Also Japanese manufacturers were very involved in the business side of the Vietnam War, and doing lots of trade with both the US and South Vietnamese army, and perhaps even supplying the materials for the US napalm bombs.

Despite all this, there was great anxiety on the part of the Japanese people and government about the Vietnam War. At the beginning of the War, when it looked possible that China might get involved, Japan feared they would be drawn right into the middle of another World War if China attacked the US bases in Japan.
Even after the threat of China joining the war diminished however there was concern that Japan’s involvement in the Vietnam War violated article 9 (the no-war clause) of their constitution. The nightly news showed images of the War, and many Japanese began to see parallels between the Americans in Vietnam, and their own quagmire in a guerrilla war in China 30 years earlier. As the American bombing campaign escalated, the Japanese, who had themselves experienced heavy bombing, began to sympathize with the Vietnamese people even more.
(As Havens points out, more bombs were dropped on Indochina during the Vietnam War than in all the years of World War II combined).

There are a lot of contradictions and ironies concerning Japan’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Despite the tremendous opposition to the War at the citizen level, Japan’s economy prospered greatly as a result of the increased trade that the War created. Havens writes: “Possibly the greatest long term effect was also the most ironic: halfway through the war Japan replaced the United States as the leading economic power in Southeast Asia, so that one of America’s most reluctant allies ended up as the chief beneficiary of the eight-year war to save the Saigon regime.”

This is a short book (only 264 pages plus endnotes) but it tries to cover a lot of ground. For example the book deals with the legal issues surrounding Article 9 of the Japanese constitution and its involvement in the war, the diplomatic issues with the United States, the opposition parties in the Japanese Diet and the parliamentary politics played out over the War, the economic side of the Vietnam War in Japan, the issues surrounding the return of Okinawa, the citizen opposition groups, newspaper editorials, Japanese reporters in Vietnam, public opinion and even Japanese pop music related to the anti-War movement. (As a big fan of Japanese oldies, this book tries to answer a question I had been wondering about for years: with massive protests and anti-war sentiment in Japan, why were there no anti-war songs on the pop charts?)
As such, much of the book feels like it is only skimming over broader issues, which in fact it is. It does, however, provide an excellent bird’s eye view of the whole conflict.

The style of the book is a bit on the dry side. It reads a bit like an academic paper which someone decided to publish as a book. But the subject material was fascinating enough to keep me interested.

As in many other parts of the world, the 1960s in Japan were a time of conflict between the old established left and the New Left. This is a major theme of Haven’s book, as he highlights the ineffectiveness of the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), and contrasts them against new citizens groups like Beheiren (Citizens’ Federation for Peace in Vietnam).

Beheiren, organized by Japanese novelist Oda Makoto, was a new kind of group which was based on decentralized, almost anarchist principles, in which any group who agreed to their basic principles could organize events on their behalf. It was based on getting ordinary citizens involved in the political process, and creating a new kind of participatory democracy, but it was unaligned with any political party.
The JSP, and the JCP, which both looked at opposition to the Vietnam War as a way to increase their seats in the Diet and expand their own political power, were very hostile to Beheiren.

Although Haven’s book touches on a variety of issues (see above) the story of Beheiren forms the backbone of the narrative. The more radical student protests, that were paralyzing Universities and leading to pitched battles in the streets of Tokyo, are mentioned only in passing. This is partly because Beheiren was a one-issue organization, dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam whereas the student protests in Japan (as in Europe and the US) were not limited solely to Vietnam, but spurred on by an amalgamation of issues including University reform, opposition to tuition increases, and anti-establishment sentiment.

To the extent the student protests are mentioned in Haven’s book, it is usually only for the purpose of contrasting them to Beheiren’s more peaceful approach.

For example the week long battle between police and student protesters at Tokyo University over Yasuda auditorium, which was broadcast live on Japanese TV and is sometimes referred to as Japan’s “Kent State”, is only mentioned in one sentence in this book, and that only to contrast with the tactics of Beheiren. (… “the delegates [of Beheiren] thought it would be wise to diversify in light of the campus violence that culminated when the police recaptured Yasuda auditorium at Tokyo University on January 19”.)

Beheiren gained international attention when it began hiding deserters from the US army, smuggling them out of the country, and arranging their passage to Sweden. After reading about the huge media furor this caused at the time, I was able to better understand the culture issues surrounding “The Stray Cat Rock: Machine Animal” movie in which the whole plot revolves around helping two U.S. soldiers escape on a boat to Sweden.


There is a lot in this book which parallels with the Iraq War, much of which is so obvious it scarcely bares mentioning. Despite the lessons of the Vietnam War or the Japanese in China (not to mention the French in Algeria, the Russians in Afghanistan, and a host of other similar situations) United States has once again involved itself in another foreign policy disaster.

Havens mentions how the Vietnam War destroyed America’s image in Japan. Despite the destruction of the Great War, in the years immediately World War II most Japanese people looked upon America as the great liberator and strong house of democracy and freedom. After the Vietnam War, most Japanese had a negative image of America. The parallel of America’s tarnished image after the Iraq debacle is, of course, all too obvious.


I mentioned this book in my Tombo Times article, despite the fact that I hadn't yet read it at the time. In my defense, I had fully intended to read it by the time I wrote the article. I had ordered it off of Amazon months previously, but kept getting messages that it was out of stock, or that they couldn't locate a copy for me.

After waiting over half a year, I switched my order to an older edition (used copy) and then immediately had a copy shipped out to me. This book was originally published in 1987, and then later republished after 2000. I’m not sure if I missed any important updates by reading the older edition or not. I’m also not sure if my frustrating experience trying to get a hold of a copy is unique or not. If you’re interested in the subject material, however, it is worth the trouble it takes to track down a copy.

Update: I've sent a version of this review to Media Mouse. They posted it here.
Link of the Day
Air in northwest Michigan sometimes among worst in nation


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to correct one fact. There was a popular anti-war song in Japan! It was a big hit in 1970's in midst of Vetnam War, The title is "Senso o shiranai Kkodomotachi"(Children who don't know wars) by Jiros. I was 8 years old and still living in Japan. I remember we often sang this song in a bus during several field trips.I've found some links to YouTube though they are old now.

I was looking for information about JRA and got here. I think this is a great blog!

Joel said...

Ah, yes, thank you. This was an oversight on my part. I was actually familiar with this song, but forgot to mention it here. (By the time I was in Japan, 2001-2009, this song was a bit dated, but it was still a popular stand-by for choral performances and school festivals.)

I agree it's a beautiful song, although I've never found it to be strongly anti-war. It always seemed to me to be more about the generation gap, and the difference in growing up between the children born after the war, and the generation beforehand.

It also seemed to me to be rather focused on the situation in Japan, and celebrating the fact that Japan itself had been without war for a full generation, but ignoring what was going on in Vietnam.

....All this I need to say with a caveat that my Japanese level never really got beyond upper-intermediate, so I can understand most of the lyrics in this song, but could well be missing something.